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Visualizing ‘The Great Wall’

The Third Floor’s previs supervisor Patrick Smith and postvis supervisor Heather Flynn discuss their work on director Zhang Yimou’s epic Chinese-U.S. action adventure co-production.

‘The Great Wall.’ All film and visualization images © Universal Pictures. Visualization and artist portrait images courtesy of The Third Floor, Inc.

The need to visualize and plan a number of epic battle sequences between a 12th century army and an invading swarm of ravenous mythical creatures led internationally acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Hero) to hire The Third Floor for previs, postvis and techvis on the world’s first big budget VFX-driven Chinese – U.S. co-production, The Great Wall. Overseeing The Third Floor’s previs and postvis teams were previs supervisor Patrick Smith and postvis supervisor Heather Flynn.

Trevor Hogg: How did Zhang Yimou articulate what he was looking for?

Patrick Smith: I had the distinct pleasure of working with Zhang Yimou face-to-face in Beijing at the production studio.  We sat together in the previs office and, although we spoke through translators, he described in animated detail what he was looking for in our previs.

Heather Flynn:  Zhang Yimou was very expressive -- even just from his gestures and speech, I could get a good idea of what he was saying before the interpreter relayed the message. At times, he would draw the pattern that he was describing. He had a style he leaned towards, which made it easier to anticipate the kind of shot he was asking for, so we were able to start in the right ballpark and tweak it from there.

The Third Floor was embedded with production in Beijing to visualize ideas and action for ‘The Great Wall’ and director Zhang Yimou. Previs was used to convey the vision for key scenes and especially the film’s three main battles.

TH: What was the goal for creating the previs, postvis and techvis? Describe your workflow.

PS: The main goal of the previs our team created was to help inform various departments of the vision the director wanted to achieve on set and through visual effects.  A lot of the previs we did was exploratory, trying different ideas Zhang Yimou wanted to realize through his storytelling.

HF: The goal for postvis was to help editorial fill in CG environment elements and Tao Tei creatures according to the director's vision prior to final visual effects creation. This allowed viewers screening the film to have a clearer picture of what the director and editor had in mind, and helped ILM get a jump on final effects having cameras and action that had been established in many of the shots. 

Previs and postvis work by The Third Floor included placing and animating large crowds of Tao Tei creatures.

TH: How detailed was the lighting, texturing and animation within your work?

PS: The director was specific with how the lighting and explosions were meant to look.  We pushed the boundaries of what we could execute through open Viewport and he seemed pleased with the results.

HF: Since in postvis we were compositing into plates where the lighting was already established, we would match those setups as closely as we could. For many of the props, we were able to get textured images and update our assets to reflect a more detailed version.  Some of the shots required more time with the postvis animation to give the story the right weight, clarity and emotion.

Patrick Smith.

TH: What sorts of conversations did you have with visual effects supervisor Phil Brennan, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh and production designer John Myhre?

PS: Our previs team worked directly with Phil on a daily basis.  As this is a visual effects-centric movie, he wanted to have a clear understanding of what we were generating.  Phil also wanted to clearly understand how the shots being created in previs could be executed on the shooting day.  Working with Stuart was a fantastic experience.  He was of course knowledgeable in his field and we would sit for hours, determining camera placements and speeds and breaking types of rigs down shot by shot.  It was also a treat to work with John.  He and his amazing team built some of the most exquisite and detailed sets I've ever seen.  It was a pleasure to work hand in hand with them as they helped inform us on the different components that would be built practically or as extensions in CG.

Heather Flynn.

HF: I worked closely with Phil every day. We discussed the director's vision and which details would best be done in postvis or in finals. When it came to choreographing the action in the last bit of the film, we spoke with the stunt coordinator about his ideas for what would be most entertaining and attainable. I animated a master scene with his action in mind so we could place cameras and give the editors coverage options as they put an edit together to pitch.

TH: What was most critical for optimizing camera setups and set construction?

PS: Working with the art department and the sets as they evolved was critical because we had to be up to speed on where cameras could be placed.  It’s easy to paint yourself into a corner by creating previs that could later be rendered useless if you work from an old set or are not able to position a camera in the real world based on where you placed it in CG.  A good previs supervisor is constantly looking out for this.  You have to know what is viable, which requires open and constant dialogue with the art department.  Also, working with the DP and grips to know what kind of cameras they will be filming with and what kind of rigs they are planning for is key.  Will there be a Technocrane available on set?  If so, how large?  Does it have a Russian arm?  These types of questions help ensure what’s depicted via previs is something achievable on set.

HF: The environments were vast and the director loved extreme wide shots. We needed to be able to see miles and miles in the distance across a landscape with thousands of creatures and hundreds of fireballs. It was extremely important to have high and low resolution versions of the set and creatures so we could optimize our workflow.

CG postvis was created during the process to fill in imagery as shots progressed.

TH: How did you approach producing the techvis required to execute continuous “one’r” takes, stunt shots and digital doubles shots?

PS: Over the years The Third Floor has built an extensive library of techvis tools to streamline our pipeline.  With one’r shots, you plan out areas where it’s possible to wipe or pan from the hero characters in order to hide a cut or digi-double takeover. 

TH: What shots and sequences were of particular focus for the postvis and what sorts of conversations did you have with editors Craig Wood and Mary Jo Markey?

HF: For postvis, we mainly focused on the three big battles, but we also worked on shots throughout the film that needed CG elements. Most of my conversations with Craig were about ways to make the action shots as exciting as possible and with Mary Jo, we focused a lot on doing postvis for the takes she felt were best from the acting and storytelling standpoint.

The Third Floor collaborated across multiple departments to create technical previs, helping plan camera placements and stunt positions to inform the practical shoot.

TH: What was the biggest challenge and how did you devise the solution?

PS: The biggest challenge for me was realizing how ingrained our cinematic language was and how to approach that with a director who had a completely different cultural and storytelling standpoint. The way we came to understand each other was an exciting challenge and I'm honored to have worked with such a visionary filmmaker.  It was a true co-venture of East and West, working together much like the characters in the film.

HF: In postvis, the biggest challenge was optimizing the scenes to run with thousands of Tao Tei creatures, completing cycles in formation across large stretches of land. This required us to develop some interesting approaches like instancing particles to follow along curves and geometry.

Visualization of the techvis shot as seen by the witness camera.

TH: Is there a particular shot or sequence you are looking forward to seeing on the big screen?

PS: I'm looking forward to the First Wall Battle and the epic End Battle.

HF: I’m excited to see the final result for the massive crowd and effects shots in the First Wall Battle as well!

TH: Final thoughts on the project?

PS: Spending three months in Beijing was the chance of a lifetime.  We got to hang out with all the translators and asked them to show us the true city – all the places where they would normally eat, dance, go drinking or relax.  They were extremely proud and honored to show us around.  We got to spend the lunar New Year with our translators’ families and hand-make dumplings with them.  It was amazing!

HF: This project was highly collaborative and it was a pleasure working with everyone on board. It was a great group of people.

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.